There is a reason that many of our national parks and memorials are packed full of visitors. They are amazing. Where else can you see iconic landmarks such as Half Dome, hoodoos, and the heads of four past presidents? However, these beloved parks are seeing a major uptick in visitors over the last few years and the overcrowded conditions that come with popularity.
According to National Geographic, the National Park Service has registered over 14 billion visits to national parks since 1904. That’s greater than the number of years the universe has existed.
The number one visited park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, received over 11 million visitors just last year. That’s a lot of people to contend with for parking, trails, and campsites.
While the national parks are on the bucket lists of most RVers, there are alternatives to these popular locations. Below are similar (but less busy) locations that are just as beautiful as the top five visited national parks. Each of these locations are close to the same area as their inspirational parks, and you don’t have to travel all the way to Alaska to enjoy them.
1. Instead of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Visit Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area
One of the greatest appeals of the Great Smoky Mountains is the steep, rugged hills full of trees bursting with fall colors. Oh, the foggy conditions also lend a hand to this popular park’s mysterious atmosphere.
While the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee doesn’t have the same type of mountains as Great Smoky, it does have the trees and wildlife that draw many urban dwellers to this area. Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area sits on 170,000 acres between two lakes.
It offers hiking, camping, fishing, hunting, a planetarium, and free-roaming elk and bison. One of the best campgrounds for RVer is the Energy Lake campground. It has 33 sites with hookups, a swimming beach, and hiking trails.
2. Instead of Grand Canyon National Park, Visit Canyon De Chelly
There is nothing in the nation that compares to the Grand Canyon. This Arizona marvel attracts over 6 million visitors a year and offers tremendous views and hiking opportunities. However, on the east side of the state, in the Navaho Nation, is the much less visited Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
Canyon de Chelly offers sheer red cliffs and rock formations, scenic drives, and iconic vistas. Entrance to the park is free, but this is an area where tribal members work and live, so be respectful of their homes and land. Backcountry tours are available from Navajo guides, and two campgrounds are also available. Cottonwood Campground is a first-come, first-served campground without hookups.
3. Instead of Rocky Mountain National Park, Visit Wind River Mountain Range
Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is quickly accessible from the Denver area, hence its 4.5 million visitors in 2018. While its snow-capped “14ers”, alpine lakes, and amazing hiking areas are attractive, head up north to see a nice alternative to this park.
Wind River Mountain Range features Wyoming’s highest peak (Gannett Peak) and seven of the largest glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. Accessed by the small town of Pinedale, the “Winds” include 2.25 million acres of rugged forest and granite cliffs. The area also has dozens of campgrounds, but check out the Dubois/Wind River KOA for extra-long sites, full hookups, cabin rentals, and free s’mores.
4. Instead of Zion National Park, Visit Oak Creek Canyon
Zion is such a unique park. Where else can you see red rocks, green trees, and flowing blue water in one small canyon? Other parks in Utah such as Bryce and Capitol Reef offer relief from the crowds, but take another look at the state to the south.
Oak Creek Canyon between Flagstaff and Sedona, Arizona offers much of the same geographic features as Zion. Deep canyons, red rocks, winding rivers, and native cultural opportunities are located in this hidden spot. While many of the campgrounds are rustic, Munds Park RV Resort has great amenities such as a pool, laundry, and general store.
5. Instead of Yellowstone National Park, Visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The oldest national park is so diverse, you would need to visit several additional parks to make up for it. However, one of the main reasons to visit Yellowstone National Park is for the abundant wildlife. Bison, elk, moose, bear, wolves, coyotes, and bighorn sheep can usually be seen on a typical visit. If you have ever been in a traffic jam in Yellowstone, you can bet there is a bear around.
Avoid these jams by heading up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota instead. With only 750,000 visitors a year (compared to Yellowstone’s 4.1 million), this park is pretty empty.
It also has an abundant population of bison, elk, deer, cougars, and feral horses. The campgrounds within the park are primitive, but the nearby town of Medora has a campground with 72 sites, full hookups, laundry, and access to the Little Missouri River.